The safety of students needs to be protected from multiple angles, finds Julie Ferry, as she unpicks the issue of campus security
The issue of security within the university sector encompasses many different elements, solutions and organisations. As a large institution there are a number of varying challenges that throw up their own complexities. From concerns for the physical security of students and staff that could be paramount during a terrorist attack or the effects of a wide-ranging cyber attack intent on paralysing the university’s network, to how to ensure the safety of students with disabilities during a fire or protecting their personal data. These are all big questions that need addressing for the institution to fulfil its duty of care correctly.
Faced with such multifaceted needs, higher education leaders often look to external companies to provide solutions. One such company is Evac+Chair, which designs and manufactures evacuation chairs that enable disabled or mobility-impaired people to escape from buildings in the event of a fire.
“At the moment regulations state that if there is a fire, all a building owner needs to provide is a refuge area for a disabled person to go to with an intercom system. The idea is that they wait there to be rescued. Our company was founded off the back of the idea that this was not a suitable arrangement,” explains Evac+Chair’s technical director Stephen Ellis, who is passionate about ensuring that disabled students are able to leave a building at the same time as others in an emergency.
“Our evacuation chairs are kept in stairwells in buildings with more than a single floor. In the event of a fire a trained person would transfer a disabled person from the wheelchair into the evacuation chair and they would then be safely evacuated down the stairs and into the designated assembly areas.”
While the company supplies some universities and large schools, he recognises that there are challenges when applying the chair to student accommodation.
“The issue you have with halls is having the trained people to use the chair. That’s the difficult bit. In an office situation there are certain members of staff who are trained and then they can be deployed. In halls you are relying on the students themselves to have a trained person on that floor.”
Law and order
Despite these hurdles, Ellis believes devices such as the evacuation chair are a vital aid for disabled students and also those with special educational needs that may become mobility-impaired at the sound of a fire alarm and need help to get out of a building. He admits that often the take up comes down to budgets and sometimes one evacuation chair will be bought per floor and not per stairwell, as the company recommends.
To encourage building owners to give greater weight to the issue, the company is looking to the government.
“Current legislation doesn’t push universities or building owners to give that protection or level of insight into their fire evacuation procedure.
We are trying to lobby the government to say this is what you should have rather than a refuge point,” he says. “The education of potential users is key too, so that when disabled students are looking at student accommodation, they are asking the right questions about how they would escape in a fire.”
On the fence
While giving students with a disability the support and physical aids they need to feel secure while studying should be a given at any institution, it is just one of a series of competing priorities under the umbrella of security in higher education. Physical security is another aspect of the overall picture and measures to secure the university environment require significant evaluation to maintain the careful balance between safety and freedom for its users.
You want the fence to be visible, but you need to remember that a university is a home for students so it has to have an open feel – Chris Plimley, Zaun
“The security of students is increasingly important. The idea of keeping only those people on the premises that you want on the premises can be achieved through fences and technology such as intercom systems and access control, however you don’t want to create fortresses,” says Chris Plimley, sales and marketing director for Zaun Group. Zaun provides security fences for a range of providers and explains that there are a number of considerations when planning for perimeter fencing that will work in a higher education setting.
“You want the fencing to be visible, so that it does serve as a deterrent but you need to remain mindful that a university is a home for students, so it has to have through visibility and an open feel. Getting the right balance is a real challenge.”
Cybersecurity is another threat to campus life and in light of recent high-profile attacks on large organisations, experts are urging universities to take the threat seriously. With large groups of digitally savvy young people, who are probably living independently for the first time, it can be easy pickings for individuals that are intent on hacking systems or encouraging victims to part with personal information. Richard Huison, regional manager Europe for Gallagher Security, has no doubt that universities represent a particular challenge for the cybersecurity sector.
“Typically when you look at the education environment there are lots of young, talented people who are highly skilled in one place. They are brought up with computers and, therefore, it is a good breeding ground for cybercrime and terrorism. In addition to that students can be vulnerable, if, say, they have financial difficulties, so can be easy targets via email, where criminals encourage them to part with sensitive details.”
Huison is clear that cybercrime is an area of security that is known about and addressed within higher education, yet with a long list of priorities he is concerned that sometimes it falls down the to-do list.
“Sometimes, ironically, there is an education problem,” he says. “They know it is there but they’ve never been attacked at a serious level. If you speak to an educational institution and ask what is their policy on cyber crime, they probably have one but have never really addressed it as a serious threat.
They have higher priorities around students’ physical safety and therefore they tend to focus on ensuring they are ready for something like a terrorist attack.”
So what is the preferred course of action?
Best practice includes having good password strength, assessing whether people really need access to certain systems and reviewing IT policy to identify vulnerabilities and minimise risks. Another clear aim should be to educate staff and students about opening emails from unknown senders.
“Universities have a duty of care to ensure that students don’t have exposure to emails that are potentially fraudulent and so the IT department can usually filter out anything like that before it reaches a student’s inbox. However, it is still important to tell students to be mindful of what they open.”
The issue of cyber attacks and how they can cripple large organisations was catapulted into the spotlight when the NHS was hit by the WannaCry ransomware outbreak in May last year. Around 81 NHS organisations were affected, with thousands of appointments cancelled, GP surgeries forced to close and, at some hospitals, ambulances diverted elsewhere. The attack was described as “unsophisticated” by the National Audit Office when it investigated and exposed how vulnerable large organisations are to even simple attacks, causing a denial of service. Huison references WannaCry when talking about the risk of a university being infected with a similar cyber attack.
“Universities need to think that it’s not a case of if a cyber attack will happen, it is when it will happen.”
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